Building connection one heart at a time
Building connection one heart at a time

China: Understanding People Through Music and Speech

Ethnomusicologist and interpreter on the peculiarities of China’s culture
10.02.2020
China: Understanding People Through Music and Speech

Elena Shulgina is an expert in a very unusual and interesting field. She is an interpreter, Chinese language teacher, and ethnomusicologist, a person who studies traditional music in China. Ms. Shulgina knows much more about Eastern culture than it is written in many books. She lived in China for more than 10 years and immersed in its atmosphere. During the interview with the Global Women Media, the expert told about the peculiarities of the mentality of the Chinese, the uniqueness of China’s traditional music and ‘rules of communication’ in the country.

Елена-Шульгина_0T.jpg Elena Shulgina
PhD in Art History, interpreter, ethnomusicologist, lecturer at the Chinese College of the International College for Arts and Communication (MKIK)

Elena Shulgina graduated from the Department of Ethnomusic Studies of the Theory and Composition Faculty of the Novosibirsk State Conservatory. Chinese language and culture have always been especially interesting for her. Ms. Shulgina worked a lot to translate the poetry of the Song dynasty period. 

Later she completed her post-graduate studies, defended her thesis, and met a married couple from the Netherlands at one of the professional venues. They were the founders of the European Association for the Study of Chinese Traditional Music. That was a momentous meeting. Together with new friends, Elena Shulgina went on an expedition to China where she was offered a job. There she also met her future husband. Thus, an expedition planned for a short time grew into 10 years of colourful life in China. That was a country long loved by Ms. Shulgina but still unusual for her.

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Today, Elena Shulgina is a demanded teacher of Chinese language and culture. She has extensive unique knowledge and is ready to share it with others. Together with her husband, a citizen of China, she has developed an original integrative course for learning spoken Chinese. 

– You lived many years in China and dedicated your life to the culture of this country. People, as a rule, have many stereotypes about other peoples and nations. We would like to know your opinion on what people Chinese are. 

– In China, people are very different from us. One reason is that most of the Russian population is Christians. In China, there was no Christianity at all for thousands of years. That makes their mentality, traditions, and perception of the world different from European ones.

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Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism are common in China, or, to be more precise, the syncretism of these three phenomena. However, I can’t say that they are very religious people (about 5% of the population in China are religious). They are rather adherents of ancient traditions and customs. 

When you get to China, it seems to you that you see people from another planet. Their life organisation follows completely different principles. If you do not understand those unwritten rules and foundations, it will be very difficult for you to interact with society. 

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– What rules and principles do Chinese people follow in their lives? 

– Confucian rules based on the understanding that each person has certain roles and responsibilities. 

The Chinese are very closely tied up with society. The country has a high population density. That’s why they consider themselves an integral part of a large society and a small unit of a ‘clan’, in which each person was born and raised. Interestingly, such a ‘clan’ includes not only the immediate family of a person but also his or her ‘close’ relatives. The Chinese may have about a hundred of them. Besides, people in China have a small personal space or do not have it at all. 

Europeans are people with individual consciousness and the Chinese are people with a collective one. That difference is well noticeable in people’s worldviews and self-perception.

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Considering themselves as part of a collective, the Chinese look at themselves as if from the outside. This is reflected not only in their worldviews but also in their speech. For example, they often talk about themselves in the third person trying to avoid the pronoun ‘I’. 

– It is interesting that many peculiarities of the mentality are reflected in the language... 

– Yes, it definitely is. The Chinese always stick to their roles in the family, at work, and in society clearly. These roles determine not only their duties and behaviour but also speech. For example, in a Chinese family, there are specific words and stereotypical expressions used in strictly defined situations. They can’t be replaced by any other phrases. 

At the same time, words are perceived as simple (and sometimes empty) sounds that do not have too much meaning in China. A person’s actions are much more valuable and expressive for the Chinese. 

The Chinese expressions have an ornamental and very soft character. Speaking directly is considered as having bad manners. The Chinese fill the speech with hints and allusions so as not to hurt the interlocutor in any way. That is why sometimes it is necessary to translate ‘from Chinese to Chinese’.

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At the same time, they never show their true emotions. They show them only to the closest people. However, when communicating with the Chinese, it is important to understand that they are constantly evaluating you and your actions. Your good or bad deeds towards them are likely to boomerang onto you in the same amount. The Chinese are just. They first listen to their mind, not their emotions. And that is also their national peculiarity. 

– You studied Chinese traditional music as an ethnomusicologist. What is it like? 

– Chinese music is unique and is organised according to its own principles and rules. First of all, such music is usually figurative and visual.

When a Chinese musician plays a piece of music, he or she most often imagines a clear plot or a specific image. In Chinese music, there is no such strong abstract beginning as in classical Western European music, for example, that of Wolfgang Mozart or Ludwig van Beethoven epoch. 

The difference in perception of sound combinations is the second important distinguishing aspect. For example, in Western European music, there are concepts of consonance and dissonance, harmonious and disharmonious chords. In general, the ‘vertical’, i.e. the chord, is important for us. In Chinese music, everything is a bit different. Dissonance sometimes seems pleasant and harmonious to the representatives of this culture. The main things for them are the sharp complex timbres, whimsical ‘improvisational’ rhythmic, and melody, i.e. the ‘horizontal’. 

This is a different aesthetics. Not everyone is ready to perceive and understand Chinese traditional music. However, those who overcome that boundary, get into another world or even another dimension. 

I believe that studying the cultures of different countries alongside with understanding and accepting the uniqueness of each nation is something that can bring us closer together. Moreover, that makes it possible for us to understand ourselves better. We all perceive pieces of art and treat life differently. That only emphasizes our diversity and opens new opportunities for humanity. 

Viktoria Yezhova, Global Women Media news agency

Translated by Nikolay Gavrilov


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